Bigger Than Life

Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (based on an article in The New Yorker by Berton Roueché)
Stars: James Mason (Ed Avery), Barbara Rush (Lou Avery), Walter Matthau (Wally Gibbs), Robert Simon (Dr. Norton), Christopher Olsen (Richie Avery), Roland Winters (Dr. Ruric), Rusty Lane (Bob LaPorte), Rachel Stephens (Nurse), Kipp Hamilton (Pat Wade)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1956
Country: U.S.
Bigger Than Life Criterion Collection DVD
Bigger Than LifeThose like myself who have spent time thinking and writing about horror films routinely cite Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as a crucial turning point in the genre when horror was firmly relocated from external monsters in safely distant and exotic lands to the heart of the American family. The twisted Freudianism of Hitchcock’s subversive black-and-white thriller recast the devoted, loving mother--one of the central tenets of pastoral Americanism along with baseball and apple pie--as an obsessive monster whose invasion of her son’s consciousness turned him into a psychotic killer. The place of Psycho in both the horror genre and American cinema will never be shaken, but after seeing Nicholas Ray’s criminally neglected Bigger Than Life, it has become clear to me that Hitchcock’s groundbreaking work had a distinct forbearer in a completely different genre: the melodrama.

Based on a 1955 article in The New Yorker titled “Ten Feet Tall” about a mild-mannered schoolteacher whose life was nearly ruined by addiction to the hormone cortisole, which he was prescribed to treat a rare arterial disease, Bigger Than Life is a surprisingly expressionistic horrorshow, a frightening and indelible portrait of the nuclear family turned into a hellish emotional torture chamber in which the cherished ideals of Father Knows Best and Ozzie & Harriet--wifely dedication, respectful children, and, most of all, the overriding wisdom and guidance of the paterfamilias--morph into emotional sadism and the threat of physical violence.

Actor and producer James Mason stars as Ed Avery, who at the beginning of the film is a deeply decent and caring father and schoolteacher who secretly works a second job as a telephone operator at a taxicab company to help make ends meet. The fact that he cannot bring himself to tell his loving wife Lou (Barbara Rush) about this job is evidence of both his need to adhere to certain codes of masculinity (teaching is justified because he is shaping the future, but the telephone work is clearly beneath him, both in terms of class and gender) and his dedication to providing for his family and ensuring that they are fully able to partake of the American Dream.

The story takes a turn when Ed collapses after a bridge party and is rushed to the hospital, where he undergoes a lengthy series of tests and prodding by various experts before being diagnosed with a rare disease whose only treatment is a prescription of cortisole, a relatively new approach whose side effects are not entirely understood. At first, the treatment works extremely well, as Ed is able to return to his job and feels better than ever (“I feel 10 feet tall,” he exclaims at one point). However, as the title suggests, the cortisole begins to make him feel a little too good, and soon he is acting with increasing mania that is first embodied as vibrant energy, but eventually goes out of hand, especially once he begins abusing the hormone by taking more than necessary.

Ed’s slow but steady descent into megalomaniacal monstrousness is all the more unnerving in that its manifestations are simply gross exaggerations of what society expects a father and provider to be. Thus, the sequence when we first begin to realize that something is wrong is when he takes Lou to an expensive department store and insists on buying her designer dresses they clearly cannot afford. An early scene in which he gently asks his preadolescent son Richie (Christopher Olsen) if he ever gets bored with the uncreative repetitiveness of television soon turns into a despotic obsession with Richie’s education, culminating in the film’s most striking sequence that features Ed and his grossly exaggerated, looming shadow hovering over Richie as the clearly traumatized child tries to solve a complex math problem, with his reward being a late dinner. Ed’s moment of high school athletic glory, which is enshrined via a football kept on the fireplace mantle, starts as a kind of bonding between him and Richie, but soon devolves into more trauma as Ed forces his son to practice again and again because anything less than the best is unacceptable.

Ed’s despotism extends to his relationship with Lou, as well, as he begins treating her as a lackey who exists only to aid his endeavors in shaping Richie, eventually leading to an unnerving sequence in which he declares at the dinner table that their marriage is over and he is keeping her around only for Richie’s sake, which is simultaneously a nightmarish inversion of familial stability and an all-too-real assessment of the true nature of too many middle-class marriages in the seemingly staid Eisenhower era. Lou’s dedication to Ed even at his most maniacal borders on the masochistic, as she implores Richie to love Ed, regardless of what he does, and we sympathize with her because we recognize that she is simply doing what society has taught her to do in playing the role of the devoted wife, even if her suburban domicile is being transformed into Frankenstein’s castle.

Coming only a year after Ray’s hugely successful Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Bigger Than Life should have cemented his status as one of the great filmmakers of his era, and while the French critics at Cahiers du cinéma found much to admire in his work and compared him to an Impressionist painter (his use of CinemaScope was consistently masterly, and he attributed his predilection for its horizontal compositions to his experiences with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright), American critics were less enthusiastic and audiences largely stayed away, perhaps because the film was simply too powerful and hit too close to home. Ray was always an eccentric filmmaker who sometimes gave in to moments of excess, both psychological and visual (for all its greatness, some of the Freudian motifs in Rebel Without a Cause, especially Jim Bakus’s emasculated father running around in a frilly pink apron, are simply too much). However, in Bigger Than Life the excess feels perfectly justified if not absolutely necessary, in part because it provides such striking visual accompaniment to Mason’s powerful portrayal of egomaniacal psychosis, but also because it allows him to slip smoothly between melodrama and horror, essentially underscoring the fundamental connection between the two genres (Mason’s unmistakably debonair European-ness is essential in this regard).

While Douglas Sirk recognized the subversive potentials of melodrama in critiquing social norms in films like All That Heaven Allows (1955), Ray takes it one step further, turning normative family practices into outright horror. Suffused throughout with the color red and featuring the kinds of dramatic, dread-inducing shadows that were the hallmark of German Expressionism, Bigger Than Life is a perfect example of one genre invading another, similar to Robin Wood’s assertion that the underlying themes of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) are given deeper meaning by the suffusion of film noir into its small-town comedy. Ray does something similar here, turning what could have been a run-of-the-mill social problem film into something darker and much more sinister, the unsettling power of which cannot be dispelled by the film’s return-to-happiness ending that leaves many crucial questions deliberately unanswered.

Bigger Than Life Criterion Collection DVD
Bigger Than Life is also available from the Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray.
Aspect Ratio2.55:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Geoff Andrew
  • Profile of Nicholas Ray 1977 TV interview
  • Video appreciation by author Jonathan Lethem
  • Video interview with Susan Ray
  • Original heatrical trailer
  • Essay by critic and video maker B. Kite
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateMarch 23, 2010

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Long neglected on home video (it has been released on DVD in Europe, but never in the U.S.), Bigger Than Life is presented in its original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.55:1 in a new 2K high-definition transfer taken from the original camera negative and restored via the DaVinci Revival system, Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, and Arri’s Relativity system. Having never seen the film before, I can’t compare it to previous viewing experiences, but I have a hard time imagining that the film could look much better. The image is impressively filmlike (just enough grain to look like celluloid, but not so much that it obscures detail), with a vibrant color scheme that is clearly reflective of the mid-1950s (the reds look particularly strong, as do the yellows of the taxicabs). Because the film features so many sequences that take place in dark or semi-dark surroundings, black levels are crucial, and they look fantastic throughout, with good consistency and plenty of shadow detail where it counts. The monaural soundtrack sounds very good as well, having been transferred at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic audio tracks and digitally restored with Pro Tools HD and AudioCube’s intergrated audio workstation.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Film scholar Geoff Andrew, author of The Films of Nicholas Ray, contributes an excellent screen-specific audio commentary that elaborates on virtually every element of the film, from Ray’s use of architecture and color schemes to the film’s relationship to both psychoanalysis and German Expressionism. Novelist Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City) does something similar in his half-hour appreciative video interview, especially in the way he relates the film to the cultural context of the mid-1950s. “Profile of Nicholas Ray” is a half hour episode of the television show Camera Three from 1977 in which film critic Cliff Jahr interviews the late director and discusses all of his most well known films. Finally, the disc includes a new 22-minute video interview with Susan Ray, widow of the director and editor of I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, and the original theatrical trailer, which interestingly highlights James Mason’s role as star and producer.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox and The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)



    James Kendrick

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